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Sir Peter Beck

Breakthroughs in space travel are standard fare for Rocket Lab, the pioneering satellite-launch business started by New Zealand rocket enthusiast Peter Beck in 2006. In 2009, it became the Southern Hemisphere’s first private company to reach space.

Phil Walter / Getty Images

“Engineering is cool, but the thing I like about space the most is just the sheer impact you can have on so many people.”

Satellites were once the size of buses, with price tags in the hundreds of millions of dollars to build and launch. Today, highly capable satellites can be small enough to be held in the palm of your hand. They can be produced quickly, en masse, and at a fraction of the cost of traditional large satellites, making them easily accessible for everyone from government departments and entrepreneurs, through to universities.

However, as satellites shrunk the rockets designed to launch them didn’t – so they remained prohibitively expensive to launch. That’s where Peter’s Electron came in – an innovative rocket designed to launch small satellites of up to 300 kilograms. It would launch smaller satellites more often to bring down the cost of space access.

It took a little while to get the programme up and running, but since 2017, Rocket Lab has been sending rockets into space, mostly from its base at Mahia Peninsula, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. A second site in Virginia, USA, was opened in 2022, bringing Peter’s dream closer of launching a rocket every week. “Space is open for business,” he says.

The company has chalked up several firsts: carbon-fibre rockets, a 3D printed engine, battery-powered fuel pumps, a reusable booster for a small orbital rocket, and a patented, water-soluble fuel. It specialises in sending satellites ranging in size from a loaf of bread to a small refrigerator aboard lightweight rockets powered by an engine of Peter’s design: the Rutherford, named after Nobel Prize-winning physicist and New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford.

And the innovations keep coming. In 2022, Rocket Lab announced plans for its newest rocket, the Neutron, which will have more than 40 times the payload capacity of Electron, and hinted at the prospect of carrying humans.

The company’s ingenious approach has slashed the cost of launches and crashed the aerospace party, dominated by much larger nations. Thanks to Rocket Lab, since 2019, New Zealand has become the fourth most frequent space launch nation in the world, after the USA, China, and Russia.

It may come as a surprise that a nation famous for its food and natural beauty could be home to a space pioneer. Until you meet Peter. The self-confessed rocket nerd was born in Invercargill in 1977, and was fascinated by the universe from an early age, devouring books and stories about the heroes of space travel.

His father, Russell, was an archaeologist, museum curator, and artist, and his mother, Ann, was a teacher. They had three sons, Andrew, John, and Peter. Russell was also a rocket enthusiast, who began by building a metre-long missile in the mid-1950s, using engineering equipment from his father’s garage workshop. Instead of firing skywards, the rocket blew up, creating a crater on the banks of the Ōreti River in Southland.

Wisely, Russell then turned his focus to astronomy, building a one-metre reflector telescope that also hooked Peter’s attention.

Peter was the youngest member of the local space club and built his first jet engine after hours at his work.

“I was building rockets and had the engineering skills to muck about with cars… but it was all about the rockets.”

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Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.

Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.

Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.